Inflammation is the body’s natural defence mechanism against any type of injury or infection. Immune cells, called white blood cells are sent to the specific location for protection. This is when we see redness and swelling around areas of injury. The white blood cells either signal to other immune cells to come and help with the healing process, or they release molecules called cytokines that attack bacterial or viral cells.
We need inflammation as a way of dealing with day to day issues in our bodies. Acute inflammation occurs for a short period of time until it resolves, for example in the case of sunburn or muscle healing after exercise. However, inflammation can become a nuisance when it sticks around and causes irritation. Examples of inflammatory diseases are allergies, asthma, autoimmune diseases, coeliac disease and many more. The problem with inflammation occurs when it persists and spreads. This type of inflammation can lead to a variety of chronic diseases including coronary heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
To reduce the risk of developing inflammatory diseases, it is important to eat a balanced diet. The Mediterranean diet is high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish and healthy oils, and is packed with anti-inflammatory foods that are essential for good health.
Antioxidants, such as vitamin C, have anti-inflammatory effects by reducing the amount of oxidative stress in the damaged area. You can find antioxidants mainly in berries, grapes (and yes that means wine!), cruciferous vegetables, mushrooms, tomatoes, dark chocolate and extra virgin olive oil.
Omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish are essential as anti-inflammatory foods. The omega-3 fats EPA and DHA cannot be made in our bodies, and are therefore a crucial part of the diet. Our bodies then metabolise these into resolvins and protectins, which have an anti-inflammatory effect. Fish that contain these omega-3 fats include salmon, trout, fresh tuna, mackerel or anchovies.
Fibre is another important element in the diet for controlling inflammation. The bacteria in our gut break down fibre and produce chemicals that our body absorbs. These chemicals called ‘post-biotics’ act as signals to our immune system, dialling down the inflammatory response and increasing the healing cells that repair damage. Fibre is present in fruits, berries, vegetables, whole grain cereals and pasta. For optimum benefits, eat a diverse range of these foods. Different varieties of fibre means diverse gut bacteria, which in turn leads to a healthier immune system. Curcumin is an anti- inflammatory compound found in the spice turmeric. It has been found to reduce inflammation related to arthritis, diabetes, and other diseases. However, these effects are only found in large doses, such as those in curcumin supplements.
Lastly, it’s important to be aware of foods that promote inflammation. Processed meats such as bacon, canned meat, salami and smoked meats have been associated with higher levels of inflammatory markers. Other pro-inflammatory foods include refined carbohydrates (white bread, pasta and rice), as well as sugar sweetened beverages and fried foods. This doesn’t mean you should completely avoid them, just remember to have them in moderation!